In citizen reporting, the reader is the writer

By Karsten Østergaard Nielsen

Is blogging journalism? The question has been asked hundreds of times in recent years on weblogs and in journalistic debate forums covering the globe.

Most of the debates about online journalism take place in the “blogosphere”. Time and again, the question of ethics and the lack of editors is used by journalists against the bloggers to distinguish themselves from this group of untrained writers.

Every time the bloggers answer by applying ethical rules to their work – or refer to the swiftness with which the blogosphere corrects itself when untruth is discovered.

But what this debate forgets is that bloggers are not alone in revolutionising our image of online journalism. Every day new media sites see the light of day – not written by journalists, but by the public who read them.

By the locals, for the locals. This new form of reporting is called participatory journalism or citizen reporting.

The Danish experiment

In the rural district of Djursland in Denmark, a group of locals took journalism into their own hands as local news media disappeared.

“We started this portal as an offer for all of Djursland to get internet. No big company wanted to help us in getting a better connection, so we decided to do it ourselves,” says Bjarke Nielsen, the founder of Djurslands.net.

It was not long before Bjarke Nielsen and the rest of Djurslands.net came up with another idea.

“For a while the local media has been lacking in diversity. Ten years ago, we had several newspapers. We had our own TV station and we had two local radios. Today, only the radio is left. Sure, there is a big newspaper covering our area, but only with half a page a day. We decided to change that.”

As the portal was already up and running, all the locals behind Djurslands.net had to do was to start producing their own news. So they did. With the help of enthusiastic volunteers the news site soon took shape.

Today, 1200 households in Djursland subscribe to the web site – getting news like “Mr Jensen is the new postman”, “TV anchor visits Ryomgård” and “Deaths”.

“We are trying to do journalism ourselves. And we realise it might not have big interest around the world, but for our local community it is essential to have an idea of what is happening in our local area. And this is the only way we get that service,” says Mr Nielsen.

Although Djurslands.net started out as a community site with everyone being able to post whatever they wanted, the locals soon learned their lesson.

“We had a local writer who posted a story that was untrue. Since then we’ve had a group of editors read through everything before it is posted on the site,” says Mr Nielsen.

He realises the importance of the editor. And with more households joining every day, Mr Nielsen has a plan for making the site better in the future.

“Of course we are not journalists. We cannot tell good stories from bad. That is why we are hoping to hire a journalist or two within a reasonable time frame. With journalists aboard to teach us how to do real news stories, we will get better and we will have someone to edit our site and maybe even make it interesting for the outside world to read what is happening in Djursland.”

In Daytona Beach, Florida, the self-made journalist Harold Kionka, runs his own TV station online. Daytona Beach Live covers everything from Bike Week to spring break – or basically whatever Mr Kionka finds interesting. And with as many as 17,000 viewers a day, Daytona Beach Live is a popular alternative in the area.

"I consider a lot of what I do real reporting with no strings attached. When a major event comes to town, I'm there with my camcorder to record everything that goes down while adding some colour commentary. On slower days, I still capture the city's day-to-day life," says Mr Kionka.

For Mr Kionka, working alone without an editor or company policy on his back is a blessing.

"I'm free to cover whatever I want. I don't have to get permission from the head office to run something. I think a lot of what we see in the media is compromised," he says.

Every citizen is a reporter

While Daytona Beach Live started as a hobby, in the Republic of Korea an online newspaper started with a different goal at hand. With 80 percent of the media in Korea being conservative, OhmyNews.com founder Oh Yeon Ho, wanted to change that imbalance.

The answer was citizen reporting. And with an internet infrastructure that offers 75 percent of the population broadband connection, the internet was the logical choice for a new Korean media.

From its starting day in February, 2000, OhmyNews.com has been groundbreaking in terms of Participatory Journalism. Basing its news on the concept that “every citizen is a reporter”, OhmyNews.com opened its doors to anyone with a story to tell.

“Our citizen reporters come from all walks of life. From elementary school students to professors. So there is a wide range in the quality and style of their articles. This is the unique merit of OhmyNews.com,” says Oh Yeon Ho.

And the results have been remarkable. In four years the site has grown from 727 citizen reporters and four journalists to more than 33,000 citizen reporters and 35 journalists – covering anything from presidential elections to money scandals.

Every day citizen reporters submit between 150 and 200 postings – the equivalent of over 70 percent of the news content of OhmyNews.com. The site pays its citizen writers a small amount: around US$17 if the story makes it to Top News.

With that many writers, most journalists would fear that professional integrity could suffer. But OhmyNews.com has taken steps to assure this does not happen.

“All [our writers] must agree to follow a code of ethics; for example, promising to write only facts and not slander others. South Korea is small enough so that it is possible for staff reporters to reach the news scene in a few hours to check whether a citizen reporter's article is correct or not,” says Oh Yeon Ho.

“I am sure that the citizen participatory journalism will expand worldwide and it will be one of the core characteristics of 21st century journalism,” he says.

Whether he is right is still to be seen. But every day, new participatory journalism sites open. In Bakersfield, California, the North West Voice, offer the locals a chance to share their everyday life with eachother, much like Djurslands.net.

In Japan, JanJan, has copied the idea of OhmyNews.com. And all over the world the number of one-man news sites increases as we speak – with the better blogger sites as the most common example.

The question is: Are these new media producing journalism? Yes, they say. And looking back at the debate from the blogosphere, most of them have a point.

Both OhmyNews.com and Djurslands.net have editors to control their work. OhmyNews.com even making people promise to keep to the truth.

On the other hand, all three examples follow the ideas of blogging. The stories are controlled by the writers. The news is based on interest instead of professionalism. And, for now, producing the content of the sites is non-profitable for most citizen reporters.

Most importantly, every one of the sites covers a hungry market. Filling a news space that was empty before, these new media does what mainstream media has done for decades: Tell the story people want to hear.

If that is not journalism, I don’t know what is.